For sheer force of writing, direction acting and story, British television simply can’t be beaten.
For all the slick, soon-forgotten artificial sludge including reality that dominates North American prime time TV, there are British series to be celebrated and admired.
My current favourite is the BBC’s Prisoners Wives, a superior limited series that sounds like a Jersey Shore reality series but in fact is a potent, psychologically searing anthology of stories of the mothers, wives, daughters left behind when their men are put behind bars.
Francesca (Polly Walker) leads the cast and a tight circle of women who meet in prison every week as they are processed to visit their mates.
Francesca’s husband (Iain Glen) is serving a long stretch for racketeering, as it dawns on her and her two teenaged children the depths of his depravity and criminality.
The family was happy to live life in luxury, never wondering where the money came from or how many people died in the taking of it.
Francesca is pulled in by her husband’s manipulations and the promise of money and she in turn pulls in her father and children.
Gemma (Emma Rigby) is a heavily pregnant working class girl whose husband seems to be a regular guy, doting on her and awaiting the birth of their baby with great joy.
One night he is arrested for murder. He can’t possibly have done it, she reckons. Their loving visits in prison are full of hope for the future as a family.
Gemma visits her protective brother in law at work and sees him commit a brutal crime. She decides to turn him in, and then realises that her husband may not be what he claims to be.
Lou (Natalie Gavin) lives in the projects with her toddler son and boyfriend. She’s a dealer and owes her boss an enormous debt, so she often leaves her boy alone. Her boyfriend is in prison and she’s trying to be a responsible mother and mate while doing something she knows is wrong.
She hopes to pay her way out of the mess and move. One afternoon, her son, wandering alone outside, is befriended by her boss and asked to deliver a parcel. Lou’s careful plans begin to fall to pieces.
Harriet (Pippa Haywood) is an anxious bundle of nerves, a widow whose son has psychiatric issues; she wears drab colours, lives in a drab house, ignoring him. He’s arrested on a drugs beef and imprisoned but she can’t bring herself to visit him and instead sits in the car outside the prison.
Harriet’s emotional development through the series is remarkable as she comes to realise that she isn’t what her son says she is, that he has tortured her psychologically and that she has a right to happiness.
Aisling (Karla Crome) visits her father in prison; he’s a lifelong criminal and an easy mark for stronger inmates. He’s trying to walk the straight and narrow so he can attend her wedding but it’s not easy as he isn’t given to thinking ahead. Aisling develops a romantic relationship with Francesca’s son which is directly related to the prison hierarchy.
Kim (Sally Carman) and her family lead a typical suburban life that’s perfect but for the next door neighbours. Their strained relationship with a single mother and her difficult son creates a nightmare scenario that soon finds Kim’s father is prison for child sexual assault.
Kim’s dissatisfied with her husband’s defence so begins her own investigations. Before long the case is eating her up and she neglects the children and she begins to doubt her husband. It’s a breathtaking story that highlights weaknesses in the judicial system that could affect any one of us.
Nicola Walker is the redoubtable DCI Jo Fontaine, who is by the book and enthusiastically so. There isn’t a whisper of mercy in her as she pursues cases against the men in prison and their wives.
The series follows each story in detail and creates meeting points for them in the visiting room and outside. Personal and legal complications arise and each story is seen through to a conclusion as far as there are real ends. As the women’s stories end, a new prison wife finds her way into the visiting room with her own variety of shock, trauma and history.
What makes this series especially fascinating is that we ask ourselves “why are they doing this, don’t they realise it’s a death wish or a ticket to prison and has consequences?”
That’s what we think. But the series is so psychologically sound and examines that very idea from every angle so thoroughly that we understand.
And that is terrifying.
Prisoners Wives: Complete Collection is available to stream on Acorn TV now and to buy on DVD from April 12.